The ongoing war in Ukraine has resulted in a litany of horrors, some of them recently documented in Mstyslav Chernov’s sterling 20 Days in Mariupol. Yet the country’s conflict-instigated tragedies didn’t begin with Vladimir Putin’s latest campaign.
Taking place shortly before Russia’s February 2022 invasion and set in the country’s east—which was ravaged by war since 2014— A House Made of Splinters affords an intimate and wrenching view of a nation collapsing under the weight of unbearable traumas, and of the young children who are the prime victims of that strain.
A House Made of Splinters is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and won the best director prize in the World Cinema Documentary Section of last year’s Sundance Film Festival, (It is now available on VOD ahead of a theatrical run in March and a premiere on PBS this summer.)
The film situates itself in a residential center for children whose parents can no longer care for them. In the individual cases detailed by director Simon Lereng Wilmont, alcoholism is the primary reason these kids’ mothers and fathers can’t fulfill their duties. Those responsibilities, consequently, are assumed by the three women who run the center, striving to find new foster homes for their adolescent and teenage residents or, at least, to provide them with the basic necessities—literal and emotional—that they’ve been so heartbreakingly denied.
“Drunk dads are all crazy, and he’s always drunk,” remarks a boy to his friends as they huddle beneath a blanket, their faces illuminated by a shining light. Far scarier than any stories about strangers lurking beneath their beds are these real-life tales of inebriated fathers and mothers who’ve fallen into disrepair.
Sasha was left alone in her home for days on end to fend for herself while her mom embarked on the latest in a long line of benders. Delinquent Kolya also has a mom who’s rarely sober, thus relegating him and his two younger siblings to the center, where Kolya has become a bitterly angry, defiant kid who scrawls hostile things on his arm, steals money, and shrugs off the police’s warnings about the path-to-prison he’s charting. Asked about a meeting with one visiting officer, Kolya spits, “He talked a lot of bullshit.”
Kolya is the most damaged kid featured in A House Made of Splinters, but virtually every child here has been scarred by their upbringing. Though Kolya acts out, he also clings tightly to his doting brother and sister, terrified of being taken away from them in the same way that he’s been separated from his mother, who visits him once (stinking of booze) and then proves unreachable by phone.
Sasha is similarly scared of being alone, and is therefore elated when she strikes up a friendship with Alina, a fellow girl whom she interacts with through both hugs and wrestling. Sasha and Alina’s hostile play-fighting, which is mirrored by Kolya’s roughhousing with his mates, is a stark snapshot of the lessons these children have learned from their abusive role models and environment, where even love is expressed via violence.
Director Lereng Wilmont sticks closely to his subjects in this overcrowded building, where grade-schoolers sleep in bunk beds, eat at long tables, and cavort in hallways, running about and performing TikTok dances to rapt-with-attention toddler audiences. One of the women who manages this establishment delivers somewhat unnecessary narration that merely articulates truths that are plain for all to see.
Nonetheless, her voiceover modestly contributes to the film’s air of desolation, which is overpowering from the get-go, when a girl named Eva weeps in an administrator’s arms over her desire to have her mother once again get sober. The subsequent sight of Eva popping airborne bubbles is not only a vision of recognizable adolescent fun, but of an innocent futilely trying to capture the insubstantial and elusive.
A House Made of Splinters fixates on Eva, Kolya, Sasha, and Alina’s countenances as they try to forge relationships, contact their parents on the center’s common phone, and contend with uncertain futures. The center can only house kids for nine months before sending them to foster homes or a state-run orphanage, and the pressure that situation breeds is burdensome, especially for Kolya, who—in the aftermath of his friends departing for the state facility—fears that he’ll be split up from his siblings.
Abandonment is an ever-present threat and weighs heavily on their minds as they navigate this limbo, caught between unfit parents they both love and fear, a makeshift center that’s akin to a waystation, and strange and frightening new foster destinations.
Be it images of a boy leaping from one top bunk to another, or of girls leaning their heads on each other’s shoulders, A House Made of Splinters locates poignant poetry in this hardscrabble milieu, if little lasting optimism. The opportunity for escape does exist for some of these kids, yet it remains possible that the wounds they’ve suffered are so deep as to be permanent. Even when they’re playing together behind a sheer curtain, pretending to be ghosts, Sasha and Alina’s fantasies turn to the macabre (“We’ll kill everyone!”). And after reading his brother and sister The Scorpion and the Frog, Kolya pronounces that the fable’s primary lesson is, “Never trust people.” In these and other instances, it’s difficult not to despair.
That war leaves ruin in its wake is no great revelation. Still, A House Made of Splinters is filled with small, shattering interactions and reactions, whether it’s Sasha trying to put on a brave face as Alina departs for potentially happier environs, or Kolya’s sister hugging him in a prolonged farewell and then drawing a picture of him on a blackboard. Tasked with handling an unending stream of broken and battered kids, the center’s heroic employees can only soldier onward, endeavoring to help as many as time and resources will allow.
“Hope dies last,” one of them intones at the film’s conclusion. As their own actions confirm, it hasn’t died yet in Ukraine—this despite the lingering, horrifying thought that, since Lereng Wilmont completed his documentary, things have only gotten worse for everyone in this region.